Recent Responses

Some psychologists believe, based on empirical research, that people tend first to make a decision intuitively and then afterwards find a way to provide logical justification for why it was a good decision. I think they use the term "heuristic" as a way to describe an analog process in which we use experience, memory, and pattern recognition as tools with which to make that initial intuitive decision. If this description of the process of how we decide is based on how our minds actually do work, what are the implications for philosophy, which seems to imply that our decision-making process is rational? Isn't the "rational" part of our brain a fairly late evolutionary development, in which it was grafted on top of our nervous system?

If the evidence favors the view that we don't always make decisions by reasoning, then philosophy needn't disagree. If the truth of the matter were that all of our decisions—including decisions about which views are more plausible—amounted to post-hoc "rationalizations," then it's hard to see how philosophy as we usually understand it would be possible. But the evidence doesn't come close to showing that. Anyone seriously engaged in doing philosophy implicitly assumes that s/he is capable of giving reasons and being swayed by them. But that's different from assuming that we always exercise that capacity or that it never misfires.

A related thought: even if the reasons we give are often after-the-fact rationalizations, it wouldn't follow that our decision our our belief is unreasonable. The underlying mechanism that brought us to our decision or belief may be well-tuned and suited to the task it was performing, even if we have little or no conscious access to how the mechanism really works. Being reasonable doesn't require being able to give an explicit, articulate account of one's reasons. Indeed, it's not at all unusual for someone to have sounds judgment about one sort of thing or another and yet not to be good at putting the basis for the judgment into words. (Shopworn example: being good at telling whether something is grammatical is one thing; being able to explain or defend the judgment is another.)

Still, it's tempting to assume that when we're doing philosophy, conscious reasoning isn't just an incidental part of the process but is the most important part of the story. And so there's an interesting meta-level question here. If we're just as prone to after-the-fact rationalization when we're doing philosophy as we are in other circumstance, how should this affect our conception of what doing philosophy amounts to? I think you're onto an interesting issue, and I'd be wary of people who offer glib answers. That said, the question isn't really just about philosophy. It seems equally important for science, and for a good many other activities. In the case of science, one common reply is that what's important is not so much the rationality of individual scientists but of the overall enterprise. On this view, science is essentially a social activity and knowledge emerges from somethng like the wisdom of the group. We're a little less inclined to think of philosophy that way, but maybe we should.

In mathematics, it is commonly accepted that it is impossible to divide any number by zero. But I don't see why this necessarily has to be the case. For example, it used to be thought of impossible to take the square root of a negative number, until imaginary numbers were invented. If one could create another set of numbers to account for the square root of negatives, then what is stopping anyone from creating another set of numbers to account for division by zero.

It's actually easy to invent a system of numbers in which division by zero is possible. Just take the usual non-negative rational numbers, say, and add one new number, "infinity". Then we can let anything divided by zero be infinity. Infinity plus or times anything is infinity. Infinity minus or divided by any rational is still infinity. We have a bit more choice what to say about infinity minus infinity or divided by infinity. But we can let those be infinity, too, if we like. So infinity kind of `swallows' everything else. (Oh, any rational divided by infinity should be 0.)

Note, however, that many of the usual laws concerning multiplication and division now fail. For example, it's true in the usual case that, if a/b exists, then a = (a/b) x b. But (3/0) x 0 = infinity, not 3; of course, you can carve out an exception for 0, if you wish, but there's no way to make that work in all cases. This is not a fatal flaw, though. In the reals, a x a is always positive; not so when we add imaginary numbers. So we would expect some old generalizations to fail in the new case.

The real question is: Is there anything useful we can do with these new numbers? So far as I'm aware, the answer is "no". There are, in fact, good and useful theories of infinite numbers, but there doesn't seem to be much use for a notion of division involving them.

What's the difference between saying that the burden of proof is on one's opponent, and simply saying that they are likely wrong? The idiom of "burden of proof" is used in a way that suggests that it's somehow different from ordinary, straightforward evaluations of evidence and arguments, but I can't think of what that difference could be.

You often do hear people in philosophy say that the 'burden of proof' is on their opponent. And you sometimes hear people argue about who has the 'burden of proof'. I think that what this usually is about is which position is antecedently more plausible, or which position presently has the best arguments in favor of it. It's kind of like the game "King of the Hill". Whoever's on top of the hill is king, and someone else has to knock them off.

Personally, I don't find this way of thinking about philosophical arguments very helpful. It's not that I don't think there is a 'truth' to these matters, but philosophical progress tends not to happen in a linear manner. The fact that something seems plausible today may not be a very good guide to whether it is true. More generally, I tend to think that understanding an issue is in a way more important than knowing how to solve it, so telling me that you've given an argument and now someone else has the 'burden of proof' just sounds gratuitous. You gave an argument. Period.

The law mandates that people must wait until they are 21 years of age in order to consume alcohol, on the grounds that that is the age at which the body is fully capable of handling alcohol. But it is well understood in biology and physiology that people's bodies grow and develop at different rates depending on any number of factors: environment, genetics, etc. And that is just the physical aspect of it. There is also the mental aspect of understanding the potential dangers of alcohol and knowing how much is safe to consume. Many 18 - 20 year old college students consume alcohol without any harm resulting. Is it accurate to draw a line in the sand and say "this is when you are ready for alcohol"? Sartre says that "existence precedes essence" which I interpret to mean that people are responsible for determining the course of their own lives. So shouldn't we have the freedom to determine for ourselves when we are ready for alcohol? Why should the government make that decision for us? If a person is both physically and mentally capable of drinking alcohol, but under the age of 21, then to enforce the minimum drinking age against that person you would be relying on argumentum ad baculum, wouldn't you? It seems like a violation of human dignity to deny me autonomy over my own digestive system.

And people are ready to drive cars at different ages. But I'm going to guess that it would be a bad thing overall if 12-year-olds were allowed to drive. And people are intellectually capable of entering into contracts at different ages, but even the 10-year-olds who think they are probably aren't.

In America, we tend to favor laws that aren't paternalistic. We tend to think that we should err on the side of treating adults as able to make responsible decisions, even though there are lots of cases where they aren't. But in America (and most places), we tend to think that paternalism about non-adults is another matter. It's not just that on average, non-adults are less ready to make decisions than adults. It's also that there are plenty of adults who would be quite happy to exploit the over-confidence, lack of experience and impulsivity of many non-adults. They'd be happy to sell whisky to 10-year-olds. They're be happy to hire children for bad wages to do dangerous work.

If you want to argue that there just shouldn't be any differences at all in what the law allows adults and non-adults to do, even if some of the non-adults are, well, children, then you've picked an interesting row to hoe, but that's not how your question is phrased. You seem to agree that not everyone is ready to decide if they should drink. It's just that you think the law should leave alone the people who are ready to make adult decisions. But as long as you agree that it's okay for the law to put some age- or maturity-related restrictions on people's actions, then we need to think about how laws like that can work. It would be an enormous waste of time and resources to have the police or the liquor store employee or whomever apply some kind of test to figure out if the person in front of them is really ready. So the law does what legal systems need to do to function: it creates rules that can be applied and enforced relatively straightforwardly and don't stray too far from common sense. In the case of alcohol, it's an aged-based criterion. It's rough. It lets some people drink who aren't ready to make that decision. And it prevents others from drinking who are. But it does at least rough justice to the facts about people's ability to decide this sort of thing.

Now I suppose we could have a drinking license that anyone can get if they can pass some kind of biological/psychological test. And we could even say that unless you've passed the test, you don't get to drink. Almost everyone would agree that this system has way too high a cost in individual liberty. But almost everyone would agree that letting 10-year-olds use their allowances to buy gin doesn't pay enough attention to the fact that children aren't simply small adults.

Maybe you're (I don't know) 17 and mature enough to make wise decisions about alcohol. And so maybe in some attenuated sense, the laws as they stand don't fully respect your dignity. But one likely cost of rejiggering the rules to carve out an exception for you would be a fair bit of harm to people who actually aren't ready to decide these sorts of things.

Legal systems don't have to produce perfect justice in every case to be legitimate. Offhand, laws that put age-based restrictions on drinking don't seem like the sorts of examples that would help make a strong case for anarchy. They seem more like the kind of trade-off that any workable legal system entails.

Many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding. What I wanted to ask is: is this a good way to construct a belief system? If so, could any feeling at all serve as a foundational principle? For instance, would a moral system that takes a deep-seated racism as a building block be any less justified than one that relies on deep-seated empathy?

If I want to construct a sound system of beliefs, then there's not much to be said for merely relying on gut instinct. That's not because gut instincts are necessarily wrong or unreliable. It's because if I'm trying to construct a system as opposed to simply enumerating my commitments, critique, evaluation and adjustment are part of the process. But most people don't have a system of beliefs, and even to the extent that they do, it's bound to be a limited system. My beliefs about some things are much more systematic and reflective than about other things. Given that none of us have endless resources to commit to working out our beliefs, that's inevitable.

But you say that "many people build their moral beliefs out of deep-seated gut feelings that themselves have no rational grounding." I'm worried about that way of putting things. If by "rational grounding" you mean something like "argument from explicit reasons," then I'd disagree that this is what's always needed. It's not just that giving reasons has to stop somewhere on pain of infinite regress. It's that, to use Alvin Plantinga's phrase, some beliefs are "properly basic." I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in believing that there's a floor under my feet. It's enough that I notice that it's there. (I could be mistaken, of course. Or dreaming. Or crazy. But I don't need to chase down those blind alleys to be reasonable.) I don't need to give reasons to be reasonable in thinking it would be wrong to slip out of the restaurant without paying my bill. It's not that there are no reasons to be given; it's that people who aren't good at identifying and articulating the reasons can still be reasonable in thinking that stealing is wrong.

This sort of thing is true in pretty much every area of knowledge or belief. Being reasonable or justified is one thing. Being able to articulate reasons and justifications is another. There's a much bigger story to be told here, but part of the takeaway will be that we aren't epistemic islands. Knowledge is social; gut instincts don't come from thin air; being reasonable is partly a matter of being plugged into a reasonable community in the right sort of way.

Turning to your specific example: if someone's moral outlook rests on deep-seated racism, it's not reasonable. It's not reasonable because racism is wrong, and moral beliefs built on racism are very likely to be wrong. (Yes; it's quite possible to give a raft of reasons for that claim. But that's a whole other topic.) People whose guts tell them to hold racists attitudes have badly trained guts. People whose guts lead them to reject racism are more fortunate, even if they get tongue-tied when they find themselves arguing with glib-gabbing nasties. But this doesn't mean that the anti-racists are just mindlessly parroting what they've been told. It's quite possible—indeed quite common—to have well-tuned judgment that outstrips one's ability to justify the judgments.

This doesn't at all mean that looking for explicit reasons is bad. It also doesn't mean that societies should do without people who spend time reflecting, investigating, criticizing. What it means is that none of us need do this about everything we think, and for many people, it's fine if they do it in a relatively limited way.

I am reading "How Physics Makes Us Free" and have a question about the central Daniel Dennett thought experiment in the opening chapter. The experiment treats body parts, crucially the brain, as a component of the body like a spark plug in a car (brain in a vat). It is, rather, part of an organism and in my mind indivisible from the nervous system. Even when higher brain function is dead a body will still reject a donated organ and attack it as alien. A thousand same-model spark plugs will work in a car without any issues. It is at the level of biology that identity first appears. Yet the thought experiment treats physics and psychology as the only relevant domains. If the thought experiment were true to biology it would not be enough to replicate all the synapses and nerves but the entire body as the biological instantiation of identity. Am I overstating a life-science claim to some part of this scenario?

You give an interesting argument that the ground of one's identity is biological rather than (just) physical and/or psychological. But it may run into a problem. Not only can one's body reject organs transplanted from someone else. It can also, in the case of autoimmune disease, "reject" (i.e., attack) one's own cells and tissues: sometimes the body doesn't "know its own." Yet it seems incorrect to say that sufferers of autoimmune disease have a "compromised" identity. Does this problem cast doubt on your proposal?

On theory that I've heard for the justification of ethics and moral responsibility in a deterministic viewpoint was that they would act as a kind of "conditioning" to make society better (i.e. we reward for the hope of them doing good and the future and punish so they refrain from doing bad). Are there any arguments against this viewpoint, and are there any other arguments for moral responsibility from a deterministic perspective?

This purely instrumental justification for assigning moral responsibility is typical of hard determinism, which says that, because determinism is true, agents are never morally responsible for their actions, even though society can benefit from talking and acting as if they were. One obvious objection is that it would be dishonest and unfair to treat agents as morally responsible if in fact they are not.

But there is another deterministic view of moral responsibility: soft determinism. It says that agents can be genuinely morally responsible for their actions, even though determinism is true, provided that the agents (1) act from motives that they would endorse on reflection, (2) know what they are doing, and (3) are not coerced by other agents. All of (1)-(3) are compatible with determinism. For this reason, soft determinism is a compatibilist attitude toward determinism and moral responsibility. It avoids the charge that assigning moral responsibility is dishonest and unfair.

You can find more in this SEP entry.

Is there any good reason why it is improper to point out white disadvantage or hardship and lobby for white power? Historically, this sort of idea has been associated with violence, but is that history so toxic that the conversation can't even be had?

A few points.

At least in the US, the idea that there is widespread, systematic discrimination against white people, let alone systematic oppression, is not defensible. This is true even if some white people are sometimes discriminated against because they're white. It's also true even if some of the policies that are sometimes used in an attempt to redress the results of past discrimination and oppression are wrong.

For example: let's suppose that some affirmative action programs are unjust. If that's so, it's appropriate to object, sue, work to have the policies and laws changed... But that's not what "lobbying for white power" suggests.

Why? After all, the expression "white power" takes its cue from the older expression "black power." But bet's think about the slogan "Black power!" What's the message here?

It's not that black people should have power over white people. The claim that lies behind the slogan is that overall, black people have had less power than white people and that this is the result of historical discrimination and mistreatment. The point of the slogan isn't that black people should have more power than some other group; it's that they shouldn't have less.

Do some black people have more power than some white people? Yes. But is this systematically true? No. In every social stratum, whites have long been at an advantage on average compared to their black fellow citizens. Some people will deny this, but the weight of evidence is heavily against them.

Demands for "black power" are protests against deep-seated inequities and injustices that have been been baked into the system over decades and centuries. White working-class people may justifiably feel that they have been left behind and neglected by the political and economic system. They may justifiably be angry about this. But it would be very hard to make the case that their plight is because they are white. And it would be even harder to make the case that African-Americans with comparable skill- and education-levels are systematically better off. There are people demanding "white power" who will try to tell you different. They are either badly misinformed or worse.

There's a problem of inequality in the United States. Some politicians and others have tried to turn that undeniable fact into an argument that whites are now the victims of systematic discrimination. But as the old saying goes, that dog just won't hunt. There are conversations to be had about how to address the effects of racism justly and fairly. There are conversations to be had about the damaging effects of inequality and how to address them. But the facts about contemporary American society don't come close to justifying the toxic rhetoric of white power.

Some Christians claim to oppose homosexuality by saying, "hate the sin, not the sinner." Is this a meaningful distinction? Is it a cogent defense against accusations of homophobia?

Yes and No. (I'm a philosopher. What did you expect?)

Yes, it's a perfectly reasonable distinction. Suppose your sibling or parent or child (as makes the most sense to you) were to murder someone. I hope that you would find what they had done to be horrible and worthy of moral condemnation. But that doesn't mean that you have to think they are horrible. It doesn't mean that you should stop loving them, or stop supporting them. In fact, I myself think that it would be horrible and worthy of moral condemnation if you did stop loving them, or stop supporting them. So, when (right-wing) Christians say things like, "Hate the sin, love the sinner", that's what the sort of thing they mean: You can love this person, even if you think that they are doing bad things. We should all agree with that.

But no, it's not, by itself, a cogent defense against accusations of homophobia. The reason it seems like this might be a 'defense' is that the (right-wing) Christians say that they don't condemn people who are not heterosexual. It's only when those people engage in non-heterosexual behavior that they've got a problem. But this just misses the point. The issue, or so most of us thought, was precisely whether homosexual behavior was morally problematic. And the charge of bigotry is based upon the kinds of reasons opponents of homosexual behavior tend to give for their views, which, in my experience, have little grounding in reality and are based upon little more than prejudice. That's where the charge of homophobia originates, and "Hate the sin, love the sinner" doesn't being to answer it. To answer it, one needs to give some reasons to think that non-heterosexual behavior is wrong that aren't grounded in prejudice. I've yet to see them, myself.

A question was asked earlier, "if something cannot be defined, can it exist?". I would like a better answer to that question, if you would please. The question refers to the existence of a 'thing' that cannot be defined, the answer was given for an object that has not defined yet. These are not the same thing. If there is no possible way to define an object, ever, can that object exist? Can a 'thing' exist with no identity?

Your distinction between something not yet defined and something for which there could never be a definition is a reasonable one, and thus an answer that bears only on the former doesn't answer your question.

Here's one possible approach. If something exists, it has some properties or other; for every property a thing might have, the thing either has it or it doesn't. If that's right, then we might say that nothing could be that thing unless it has that set of properties. And in that case, we might say that the set of properties "defines" the object, whether or not any finite list could capture all the properties.

That's a rough sketch. It would need careful spelling out and it would also be subject to various objections; leave those aside. The point is that if we look at things this way, the notion of "definition" we're appealing to needn't have anything to do with how limited creature like us get a grip on the object. If this line of reasoning is correct, then nothing could exist unless it had a definition, but things would have "definitions" in this sense whether or not anyone knew or could know those definitions.

What if we insist that a definition must be something a finite knower could grasp? In that case, it's hard to see what connection there would have to be between existing and having a definition. The world in all its complexity was around long before we arrived and will still be around long after we're gone. Why think that what we (or our evolutionary successors) can grasp should limit what there can be in the world itself? Thus, if definition is what we might call an epistemic notion (a notion having to do with what we can know), then it might very well be that some of the things that exist can't be defined.